Two decades after 9/11, a conversation with a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia

In a Q&A, Joseph Westphal, a senior global fellow at the Lauder Institute and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, talks about post-9/11 Saudi Arabia.

Joseph Westphal with American soldiers in Afghanistan
Joseph Westphal promoting soldiers in combat in Afghanistan in 2010. (Image: Courtesy of Joseph Westphal)

Joseph Westphal was only a few weeks removed from exiting his role as acting secretary of the Army in the Bush Administration when he received a phone call.

“It was kind of a strange call,” he remembers. “I got a call from the Pentagon, from the Center for Emergency Operations. An Army sergeant was on the call and said, ‘Mr. Secretary,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m not the secretary anymore,’ and he said, ‘Yessir, I know.’”

Westphal was asked to remain in Washington, D.C., as thousands of cars fled the city on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. After 12 hours of not receiving a follow-up call, he decided to go home.

“To this day, I don’t know what that call was about,” he says. “But I think there was concern that if some of the senior leadership of the department was injured or killed in the event, or were in some other way unavailable, they would call on me to come back.”

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, many will inevitably share similar—and wildly varying—stories of what they were doing that day: when they learned of the tragedy, how they responded, and how it made them feel. Indeed, the events of that day echo all the way to 2021, shaping foreign policy, counterterrorism efforts, and the complex international relationships in the Middle East and beyond.

Westphal, who is a senior global fellow at the Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies and previously served as acting secretary of the Army in 2001, undersecretary from 2009 to 2013, and was the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from March 2014 to January 2017, discusses how the events of 9/11 shaped his role as ambassador and continue to color how Americans perceive Saudi Arabia.

By the time you were appointed ambassador, what were the lingering effects of 9/11 in that role?

There were several lingering effects. First, Al Qaeda was still operating and carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia. Religious fundamentalism was alive and well in Saudi Arabia and we were troubled by their violations of human rights. Then the 9/11 Commission, and subsequent work to understand how this had come about, determined that many of the terrorists were Saudis. And the question was, ‘Did the government of Saudi Arabia aid and support these people?’ That is, the government, officially, in some capacity or another. It may not have been their top leadership, but maybe underlings in government service helping them get established in the United States and helping to get everything from housing to the money to train for lessons, all that. There was a whole investigation into these factors.

When I was there as ambassador, this debate about the participation of Saudi Arabia was still very active. Subsequently, President Obama decided to allow some of the redacted materials from the investigation of 9/11 focusing on the role of the Saudi government to be released, but it was redacted. These were 28 pages from a Congressional report on the 9/11 attacks and what role, if any, Saudi Arabia played in supporting the hijackers. This part of the report had been classified. The White House determined then that there was no evidence the Saudi government supported the hijackers. In 2016, Congress unanimously overrode President Obama’s veto and passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which would allow family of victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia.

We had built a strong relationship with Saudi intelligence under the Ministry of Interior, where our CIA and FBI were working closely with them in fighting terrorism. And most importantly, my goal was to protect the embassy and all the embassy personnel and American personnel who were working and living in Saudi Arabia—particularly people working in the defense industry. We had the defense contracts to train the Saudi military. The Army, the Navy, and the Air Force had a lot of military service members and contractors working on training and they were always big targets for Al Qaeda. We had a lot of threats being sent to us by Al Qaeda and the Saudis were very helpful in intercepting and helping us to fight those threats, and while I was there for three-plus years, there was no attack on our embassy—threats, but no attacks, due largely to the support and cooperation of the Saudi government. The fight against terrorism soon switched to a fight against ISIS as Al Qaeda became much less of a threat.

So, terrorism was always on everybody’s mind. The counterterrorism issues were hard. But we were very successful working with our Department of the Treasury to work with the Saudis to create new laws for them that prohibited and policed the flow of money out of Saudi Arabia. Much of what they had been doing for many years, was wealthy Saudis were funding—sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly—terrorist activities around the world. And supporting radicalism in countries in Europe and Asia. They would do it by giving away money to charities, and as I said, some of them didn’t know money was going to these organizations—they thought they were giving money to charities that would help children or other charitable causes. But much of this money was being funneled to terrorists.

So, the Saudis passed very strict banking laws with our help and advice and support to stop the flow of money, and really, basically, to just shut it down. And they listed very clearly the only charities Saudis could donate to.

Has that continued to be successful?

Yes. The other thing they’d been doing for many years was exporting radicalism. If not by funding it, then by education, through supplying textbooks to Muslim countries in Asia and Europe. The wealth of Saudi Arabia was enabling them to publish books for schools, for kids in places like Pakistan or the Balkans, in Indonesia and other Muslim countries, with tremendous amounts of radical anti-West material. In addition, imams from Saudi Arabia traveled all around the world preaching that same stuff.

Fighting the religious community was always hard for them. With the help of the State Department, the Saudis began to review and remove radical political materials from textbooks they exported. They also started blocking the imams from traveling to these countries unless they could see their sermons. They also prohibited any politics being preached from mosques in Saudi Arabia, and they threatened all sermons by imams that if there was any preaching of anti-West, any politics other than pure religion, people would be arrested. That put the kibosh on that as well.

Did 9/11 change the urgency of that problem? Would these changes have happened anyway?

I think certainly the U.S. became much more focused and aggressive on this, pushing for reforms. We knew this was going on for a long time, and we had tried through many diplomatic ways over time to try and stop some of this, but it was not going anywhere. 9/11 provoked on their part and ours a serious effort that says, ‘This has to happen now.’

And they made very significant reforms across the way. One of the things people don’t realize that happened is back in 1978 or 1979, two events took place in the Middle East that changed the place forever: the first was the Iranian revolution that brought Khomeini to Iran and created the Islamic Republic, which was extremely conservative. The Saudi royal family at the time, the king and the royal family, Saud, got very worried about the Iranians. They were very worried that might happen in Saudi Arabia, that there might be a similar Islamic revolution, overthrowing the Saud family. And then simultaneous to that, a group of domestic terrorists led by a fundamentalist Muslim young man, who also criticized the royal family for being too lax, attacked the holy mosque at Mecca and took it over for several weeks.

This was a wake-up call to the Saud family, because Saudi Arabia at the time was actually pretty liberal and it was becoming more westernized in many ways. And so, the Saudi royal family decided they could not risk a revolution inside its own country, an Islamic Revolution like in Iran. So, they basically gave religious leadership significantly more power and kowtowed to demands that the country become more conservative religiously. It changed the role of women, to what you saw then is women all covered up, all this very fundamental orthodoxy going on. That was a reaction by the royal family to what they thought might be happening in their own country.

Since King Abdullah and now King Salman have come in, they and their leadership have tried to open and modernize the country. For example, they removed the religious police who would harass women in public about their dress, who would arrest people if they were men and women not married or not members of family together. That’s all partly gone by the wayside. Women now are in business, women can own businesses, run them, can drive, it’s a completely different world than what it was when even I got there in 2013. Art, movies, music are now in the open and theaters and music concerts are now coming to Saudi Arabia.

Do you feel like we underestimate how much these international happenings influence us here in the United States?

I think we do. And the other thing to remember, particularly about Saudi Arabia, is it’s so important for a couple reasons. It is the wealthiest and most important Arab country—and you could probably even say Muslim country—in the world. And one of the reasons, of course, is that the center of Islam is in Saudi Arabia in Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed. It is very important in terms of influence in the Old World and throughout.

But until very recently, it was a closed society. Unless you were invited by the government or had a specific purpose, you couldn’t just travel to Saudi Arabia to visit. No tourism visas, period. Any visa you had to travel there, you needed permission from the government and to have a specific purpose. It isn’t like they were following you around and all of that, like in the old Soviet Union, but you had to have a purpose to get into the country.

Most Americans don’t know Saudi Arabia, its people, and customs. They’ve never been there, they’ve never met Saudis, and don’t know much about their history and culture. On the other hand, if you look at Saudi society, most men and women of about ages 50 and above studied in the United States. At one time, when I was ambassador, we had about 100,000 Saudis studying in the U.S. on scholarship. Most Saudis have studied and lived in the United States and love it. Or their children grew up in the United States. So, to them, the U.S. is the most important country, they like coming here and believe the U.S. is their best partner. But for Americans, there’s no knowledge, because they haven’t traveled there, they haven’t lived there, and most don’t know any Saudis. If you look at Gallup polls, even recent ones, most Americans have an unfavorable view of Saudi Arabia.

Is it difficult in diplomacy to strike that careful balance between not holding a grudge and trying to work with places like Saudi Arabia that have this spotty history?

I don’t think so. We’ve done it. We certainly did it with Germany and the atrocities they perpetrated in the Holocaust. And yet we have been able to not only sustain a relationship with Germany and the German people but rebuild the country and work with them. We continue to suffer the pains of the Holocaust and are willing to move forward but ensuring that future generations are made aware of that horror.

Like the Holocaust, we must never forget what happened 20 years ago on September 11. It was an attack on our homeland that killed 3,000 and injured about 25,000. It was led by a Saudi, Osama bin Laden, and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The aftermath of 9/11 was very difficult for me as I lost many colleagues and friends in the Pentagon. Two examples are Lieutenant General Tim Maude, whom I worked with on Army personnel issues, and my General Council, Ernie Willcher, both good friends who provided great service to our country.

What about the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

This unspeakable event, like many we have witnessed around the world, always present for us a dilemma of how to react and how it impacts our core values as a nation. In this case, two presidents and Congress have been reluctant to act against the government of Saudi Arabia either for lack of credible intelligence or simply for the importance of Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner in the volatile Middle East. In 1976, a former foreign minister of Chile in the Allende government was assassinated by use of a car bomb in Washington, D.C. This caused a very strong reaction from Congress and the White House, and Chile was virtually shut off from commerce and the bilateral relationship was very limited. Perhaps because it was on our soil, unlike the Khashoggi assassination, which took place in Turkey.

Our national politics today is confronting the issues of focusing on our needs and domestic interests versus a more globalized approach in support of our values and national interests. Both presidents Trump and Biden talked about withdrawing from battles in the Middle East and the recent events in Afghanistan are the evidence of their thinking. How we will deal with Russia’s aggressive military incursions, China’s military expansion, Iran’s support of militias in Iraq and those surrogate elements they support in places like Lebanon, Syria and Yemen and South Korea’s nuclear ambitions will be the real challenge in the next decade. Our Middle East policy will need to be reassessed in favor of a stronger focus and strategic action in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Thinking about your role at Penn, how do you incorporate 9/11 into your lessons in teaching Penn students or interacting with them? Some of these students may have a foggy memory of 9/11, or none at all now, so it’s an interesting time period we’re in.

One of the amazing aspects of the Lauder Institute is its emphasis on a broad context to the study of an MBA. The broad context in my view is the needs of today’s leaders to understand the world in which they operate in terms of culture, politics, and history. I tend to focus on foreign policy and have placed some emphasis on our role around the world combatting terrorism, strengthening democracy, and protecting our national security. Until the pandemic hit us, I was taking students to visit our largest military operations commands, such as Central Command (Middle East) and a Special Operations Command. I took a group of students to Saudi Arabia, and they wrote their MBA thesis on its Economic Transformation Plan. I had organized a trip to Congress and the State Department as well as Cyber Command.

Now, upon the return to in-person classes and the possibilities of travel again, I will focus on 9/11 for what it has meant in terms of our lives, our security, our politics, and our global outlook.